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Analysing The Novel Elegy For My Father English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1458 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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‘Elegy for my Father’ is a melancholy piece of poetry which uses descriptive imagery in order to describe a father’s last hours. The original definition of an elegy was a dedication to a persons life, either in mourning or sorrow. This example is written in six separate eight line stanzas, each flowing from the next. The poem could also be described as a form of lyric poetry because of the deep thoughts and feelings expressed in it, and the story it is telling.

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The sombre metre of the poem uses dactylic tetrameter, which creates a kind of rapid effect, and also with the unrhymed lines creating a less flowing rhythm, with a more jagged like tone throughout the poem. The variations of the chosen dactylic meter illustrated in the first stanza, range from the trochee in lines 1 and 7, the cretic in the first foot of line 2, the bacchic in the third foot of line 2 and the running start or extra syllable beginning in the first foot of line 4. The different mix of the poetic forms shows how the author, Annie Finch, illustrates freedom and expression in her writing. In his review of Annie Finch’s poetry, Michael Parker states, ‘Finch is simply a master of meter, displaying a distinct, complex yet highly readable metrical system, most unique for contemporary poets.’ The main subject, the father, has little of his life left to live and Finch wants the reader, to journey through this particular time in great detail. The images of vigil evoked in this poem allow the reader to develop a feel of the pagan ritual of mourning the death of a loved one. The spiritual views which Finch follows so boldly and weaves into her works beautifully are very vivid in the imagery used in ‘Elegy for my Father’. Ted Richards wrote in Jacket Magazine that “Finch, who has described her work process as including the whispering or muttering, shouting or chanting or singing her words aloud as she writes, has brought that song into the words in a way that we associate with poets of an earlier era, like Tennyson or Kipling.”

Throughout the poem, the repetitive use of “you” and “he” for the father is significant because it creates that close personal feeling of a father and his daughter, and how death can change it all. It also creates empathy in the reader towards the subject. In the later part with lines like “Night, take his hand” and “He has given his body” we can feel the distance which is created by death. This creates that feeling of transition and distance which one goes through in the ritual of mourning the death of a loved one. In the transition from “you” to “he” Finch has created that feeling of departure just like creating “the most moving moments in an elegy…. when a poet juxtaposes the mourner’s address to the dead person with a sympathetic but sceptical testing of that convention: If the dead are forever deaf and inert, how can they hear what we say?” (Shaw, 1994)

The two epigraphs presented in quote form at the beginning of the poem act as a preface to the subject of the poem: death as part of the natural circle of life. ‘No earthly shore until is answered in the vortex of our grave.’ The word ‘grave’ mentioned early on in the poem reveals ideas about death and ‘earthly shore’ about the earth bound physical part of our life before we move on to the spiritual life beyond. In the next line, ‘the seal’s wide spindrift gaze towards paradise,’ the ‘seal’ and ‘paradise’ emphasise that once dead in the physical sense, you are passed on to ‘paradise.’ Similarly with the ‘lion’ in the second epigraph, it is as if we the readers are to believe that humans can be compared to an animal as large and triumphant as a lion or a seal perhaps. The reason for the epigraphs at the beginning of the poem is to create a strong indication of the poem’s theme that is to follow. Finch uses two quotes from a poet (Crane) and a philosopher (Wittgenstein, in whose work her father was a particular expert) to inform her poem’s content. In comparison, T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘Gerontion’ uses an epigraph taken from Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure:’ ‘Thou has nor youth nor age/ But as it were an after dinner sleep/ dreaming of both.’ A popular choice among literary writers, the epigraph sets the scene for what is to follow and enables the reader to form their own ideas about the theme chosen.

‘In the deep room where candles burn soundlessly and peace pours at last through the cells of our bodies.’ Lines 1 and 2 of the second stanza echo line 1 of the first. The repetition of both adverbs ‘soundlessly’ and ‘wordlessly’ is an example of where Finch has attempted to use rhyme but in a completely different way. The family of the dying father is watchful by his side, ‘Three of us are watching, one of us is staring.’ It is almost as if they know what is going to happen, but they want to stay in the moment forever and not see him die. ‘With the wide gaze of a wild, wave-fed seal. Incense and sage speak in smoke loud as waves.’ The descriptive imagery Finch uses, particularly the alliterative ‘w’ sound in line 12 and the sibilant ‘s’ sound in line 13 in the second stanza shows that she is using sound to illustrate how she is feeling. The repetition of these consonants and the use of the nature theme help to create an image of happiness, and not sadness. ‘Crickets sing sand towards the edge of the hourglass.’ The ‘hourglass’ signifies an end point in time, but if crickets are singing then there could be an element of joy too. It is the difference between our imaginations and reality that the focus of this poem is illustrating. It is showing the balance of light and dark and death alongside life. Overall, the description of the room and the imagery used suggest aspects of Pagan ritual – the references to ‘incense,’ ‘candles’ and ‘circles’ and to animals.

There are roughly three sections of this poem; the first being the descriptive tribute to a father most loved, the second being the father losing grip on his life, with his family close by, ‘we will stay with you, keeping the silence we all came here for,’ and the last involving the moment in which he dies, ‘Silence is here.’ In the fifth stanza, lines 34, 35 and 36 all begin with the word ‘spin.’ This is the first noticeable pattern of words chosen by Finch. The effect of repeating each line with the same word affects the outlook on the situation. It is as if the death which is happening is such a blur that it spins impatiently, waiting for an outcome. Lines 38 and 29 of the same stanza also begin with the repeated word ‘flying.’ The similarity between ‘spin’ and ‘flying,’ both of which suggest adventurous actions demonstrate that at this point, that the father is nearing a dignified death, ‘His breath slows, lending its edges out to the night.’

Ending with the last stanza, where the father dies, it is important to point out that with the author’s pagan religious beliefs, the theme throughout has been that death is much more than just death alone. It is likened to nature, and the soul; ‘He has given his body; his hand lies above the sheets in a symbol of wholeness.’ This powerful imagery and religious (albeit Pagan) input infuses a feeling of warmth and strength for the ending of the poem. We the readers are left to our own imaginations, words such as ‘gold,’ ‘flame,’ ‘temple,’ and ‘prayer’ paint the scene of the mourning and passage of a person into the realm of death with ritualistic and religious sanctity.

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Edain McCoy has said that, ‘when one defines oneself as Pagan, it means she or he follows an earth or nature religion, one that sees the divine manifest in all creation. The cycles of nature are our holy days, the earth is our temple.’ Annie Finch in ‘Elegy for my Father’ creates a personal outlook on her father’s death framed by her own Pagan beliefs.

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1. The writer of the poem was identified by typing the first two lines of the first stanza into Google’s search bar, and following the first link to: http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/annie_finch/poems/22499


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